Dallas outlook: sun, smiles
Confident leaders try to keep expectations in check as camp opens
SAN ANTONIO — Someone accidentally venturing into the Alamodome late Friday afternoon might have mistaken the Dallas Cowboys’ opening press conference for a summer picnic.
All the event lacked were balloons and a cake.
When Jerry Jones wasn’t gushing over his Ford sponsor, the team owner was practically dumbfounded by the newly shaped Wade Phillips — sans about 40 pounds since last season.
When Phillips wasn’t wondering why Nutrisystem hadn’t yet called, the fourth-year head coach was all but showing off photos of his 5-day-old granddaughter Ivy Jo.
And director of player personnel Stephen Jones trumped them both by announcing that secondround pick Sean Lee, a linebacker out of Penn State, had agreed to terms. For the second straight year, every Cowboys draft pick — most notably first-round wide receiver Dez Bryant — has been signed.
In fact, Jones couldn’t help kidding about the oft-tardy college star from Oklahoma State: “He was not on time, but before time.”
Camp Sunshine opens here today. Clouds to come later — which is why Jones and Phillips both downplayed runaway optimism.
Still, Dallas’ training camp was ushered in with smiles all around. Those facial expressions were inverted the last time the Cowboys convened in an official capacity, getting trounced by the Vikings in the NFC semifinals.
The memory of that 34-3 blowout hasn’t kept Phillips up nights, mostly because it wouldn’t change the outcome and he wouldn’t learn anything he didn’t already know the moment the final seconds were ticked off.
Dallas must protect Tony Romo. Phillips should be
Continued from C more daring and should have gambled on the opening drive rather than attempting — and missing — that long-range field goal. Certain frontline players, like fading wide receiver Roy Williams and banged-up running back Marion Barber, had better get their acts together.
Things will never be as rosy in Cowboys World as they are right now, as the first NFL team to open camp. Jones and Phillips, realizing that, tempered some outsiders’ over-the-top enthusiasm for Dallas’ chances of becoming the first team in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl that it is hosting.
“We’re trying to get the deal done,” Jones said in his opening statement. “We know we have a lot of promise. But there are no guarantees.”
Said Phillips: “We don’t even have a team yet. We’ve got 80 guys fighting for spots.”
Well, he’s probably got about five competing for the final roster positions. The Cowboys are that set.
Dallas is far from a perfect team, however, and it’d take a tremendous leap of faith to suggest a team that has won just one playoff game in the last 13 seasons should be an overwhelming favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLV.
But the Cowboys are clearly the class of the NFC East, almost by the process of elimination.
They were the only team in the league to rank in the top 10 in both rushing and passing. Romo drastically reduced his interceptions. DeMarcus Ware is the NFL’s premier pass-rusher, and both cornerbacks were Pro Bowlers. The team is stacked. Hey, they handed eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans its first loss of the season last year, as late as December.
“I think we’re one of the more talented teams in the league,” Jones told me, “but I’m pulling up there.”
The season sets up great for the Cowboys. Donovan McNabb diluted the strength of the Eagles and beefed up the better-thanpeople-think Redskins with his offseason trade, but neither team was close to Dallas’ caliber a year ago. The Cowboys crushed the Eagles in back-to-back games — the last one in the postseason — and shut down DeSean Jackson before he had to rely on passes from McNabb replacement Kevin Kolb. The Giants have fallen off dramatically since their Super Bowl championship, mostly on the defensive side.
Twenty of 22 Dallas starters from last season are back. So set was the roster that Jones didn’t even scour the free-agency bin and chose to stand pat except for a trade of underachieving linebacker Bobby Carpenter to the Rams for their underachieving left tackle, Alex Barron.
Therein lies probably the biggest issue facing the Cowboys, who released Flozell Adams in April. Can fourth-year Doug Free replace the 12-year veteran at left tackle and keep Romo upright long enough for him to be the elite NFL quarterback that he is? The team is showing a lot of faith in Free after effectively replacing the injured Marc Colombo last season, but Barron waits in the wings.
Aside from that, the development of unproven kicker David Buehler in an area of unmitigated disaster a year ago ranks a close second. The Cowboys missed a league-high 11 field goals in the regular season and two more in the playoffs, and will now be counting on a second-year kicker who has one of the strongest legs in the league but must overcome accuracy problems.
Dallas will give him every chance to win the job. In August. After that, the stakes are too high to be timid.
It’d take a tremendous leap of faith to suggest a team that has won just one playoff game in the last 13 seasons should be an overwhelming favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLV. But the Cowboys are clearly the class of the NFC East.
Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, left, and team owner Jerry Jones, right, laugh as Jones responds to a question on Friday.